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Friday, February 12, 2010

Lincoln Mythbusters

Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln! On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. His family settled in Illinois in 1830, and the next year, Lincoln struck out on his own.

Lake Countians long for connections to the great orator and 16th President of the United States, as evidenced by multiple local legends.

Lincoln's only documented visit to Lake County occurred in April 1860. While in Chicago, Lincoln took the train to Waukegan to give a speech and to visit his attorney friends, Elisha Ferry and Henry Blodgett. He had dinner at the Ferry home on Julian Street, followed by a speech at Dickinson Hall. A fire broke out at a nearby warehouse, ending the speech, and Lincoln is reported to have given a hand in putting out the blaze. Afterward, Lincoln returned to the Ferry home and spent the night, giving the home the legitimate claim of “Lincoln slept here.” The bed in which he slept is displayed at the Waukegan Historical Society.

Though this was Lincoln's only visit to the county, that hasn't stopped folks from finding other connections real or imagined.

Lincoln as photographed by Alexander Hesler, June 1860. (above) On Lincoln's visit to Waukegan in April, he reportedly got a shave at Philip Brand's barber shop. Though Brand could well have given Lincoln a shave, the photo above, taken two months later, easily discounts Brand's other assertion of being "the last man to shave Lincoln."

The earliest supposed connection between Lincoln and Lake County takes us back to the Black Hawk War of 1832. Local legend states that during the war, Captain Lincoln and the troops serving with him, marched to the York House Inn on Greenbay Road in Waukegan Township. However, the legend fails to mention that Lake County was not yet settled, and the York House Inn was built in 1836—four years after the war ended.

Additionally, troop movements archived in the State of Illinois' Archives, reveal that the closest Lincoln's company came to Lake County was Janesville, Wisconsin.

A second legend claims that Lincoln had a law office in Half Day. As exciting as this might be, there is no historical documentation to substantiate this claim and it simply doesn't add up. An enterprising young attorney would have certainly touted the fact that he had not one, but two offices, but Lincoln never mentions Half Day in his papers, letters or autobiographies.

Lincoln's family home and law practice were in Springfield, 200 hundred miles away. He rode the circuit on horseback six months out of the year for the Eighth Judicial Circuit in central Illinois, again hundreds of miles away.

He did have reason to come to northern Illinois; after the federal court relocated from Springfield to Chicago in 1855, Lincoln occasionally traveled to Chicago for court purposes. However, an occasional court appearance in the City would not make it feasible to hang his shingle in Half Day where he would have to rent or buy a building and duplicate his law library. Travel was slow and wearisome and a “commute” from Half Day would not be practical for timely attendance at federal court. Circa 1920 postcard of the Half Day Inn.

To entertain this notion further, we would have to wonder at Lincoln's common sense. For such an industrious man, why would he choose the tiny farm community of Half Day over bustling Libertyville or Waukegan—with its courthouse—to establish a second office?

The third legend is the most promising. It claims that Lincoln spent the night in Hainesville while visiting his friend Elijah Haines. There is no primary source documentation that this visit occurred, but locals have passed it down through generations. Oral history is sometimes the only clue to past events, and there is often truth in it, though sometimes just a grain. In this case, I believe that grain to be the fact that Haines and Lincoln were friends, and that locals were eager to promote it.

The men first met in Chicago during the Great River and Harbor Convention of July, 1847 as delegates from their regions. This convention was in response to President Polk vetoing funding for river and harbor improvements in the Great Lakes.

Haines went on to serve in the State Legislature, and had occasion to meet Lincoln in Springfield where Lincoln lived and worked. As mentioned above, Lincoln’s position as a trial and appellate attorney kept him occupied in central Illinois with occasional trips to Chicago. Taking a 49-mile detour from Chicago to visit a friend in Hainesville wasn’t impossible, but unnecessary since the men could see each other in Springfield.

A key factor in determining the credibility of Lincoln lore is the amount of documentation. Lincoln is one of the most documented people in American history. People went to great lengths to record his life, including Lincoln, who wrote three autobiographies.

If you've heard other Lake County Lincoln legends, please let me know. I'd enjoy hearing them and adding them to the list.


Unknown said...

So my first great grandfather got a job as a Lighthouse Keeper in Waukegan Illinois and the only way he could have got the job was through Abraham Lincoln appointing him the job. It was very common at this point for veterans to have a special opportunity to have this type of job. If Lincoln did not tell my grandfather in person then there must be some type of note or parchment paper notifying and making it legal an official for him to have got the job as a Lighthouse Keeper. If she go to Waukegan now you will find my fourth great grandfather's house and the lighthouse. It's an official historical landmark. So it's not that it didn't happen it's understanding how did it happen. How did Lincoln get involved and why did he give my 4th great-grandfather this job?

Diana Dretske said...

Hello John,

As a disabled Civil War veteran of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, it's quite possible that your great-grandfather or a close acquaintance reached out to President Lincoln (via letter) seeking the appointment as lighthouse keeper. Disabled veterans had great difficulty in finding work and supporting their families. At the time, appointments were made by the Treasury Department, but there were instances, such as this, when presidents intervened.

Perhaps the National Archives and Records Administration has a letter regarding the appointment. Here's a link describing the Nat'l Archives' holdings for lighthouse keepers:

Thank you for commenting and reminding us of this history.